Toward a Theology of ‘Both/And’ — An Interview with Father Mauro Gagliardi

The Italian theologian explains that his new book seeks to show how all the faithful — laity and clergy alike — are to both teach and defend the truth of Catholic dogma.

Book cover of Father Mauro Gagliardi’s "Truth Is a Synthesis: Catholic Dogmatic Theology".
Book cover of Father Mauro Gagliardi’s "Truth Is a Synthesis: Catholic Dogmatic Theology". (photo: Courtesy photo)

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Gerhard Müller has called it “in every way a magnum opus,” while papal biographer George Weigel has described it as a “very welcome contribution to the New Evangelization, and especially to the formation of priests and other pastoral ministers.” 

They were referring to Father Mauro Gagliardi’s work Truth Is a Synthesis: Catholic Dogmatic Theology, a volume that presents for beginners a comprehensive, organic view of the Catholic faith. 

In this interview with the Register, Father Gagliardi, a priest of the Archdiocese of Salerno, Italy and professor of dogmatic theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, explains his motives for writing the book, the challenges dogmatic theology and orthodoxy face today, and why every baptized person is a guardian of the faith, called not only to diffuse it but to defend it. 

 

Father Gagliardi, what were your goals and motivations in writing this book, Truth Is a Synthesis: Catholic Dogmatic Theology?

There are several, but I will simply mention four. 

First, the purpose of the book is to provide an organic, unified and understandable presentation of dogmatic theology from a Catholic perspective. The book is intended primarily for first-year theology students, but I have also received positive feedback from several bishops and pastors, who use it as a preaching aid, as well as from laypeople who, while not being theology scholars, are passionate about the subject. 

A second objective, closely linked to the first, is to provide a useful contribution to overcoming the fragmentation of knowledge; in this case, theological fragmentation. 

A third objective is to deepen, in a broad and documented way, a principle that has long been part of the Catholic Church’s self-understanding, the principle of et-et (in Italian “sia sia,” in English “both-and”). A great number of Catholic authors, both theologians and essayists, refer to this principle, but there are very few systematic treatments on it. In my book, I highlight the fact that this principle (which has its root in Jesus Christ himself, who is both God and man) is a structuring element of all fundamental theology and all dogmatic theology. Although I do not deal with it in the book, I have reason to believe that the same is true of moral theology as well. 

Finally, by publishing this book, I also wanted to draw attention not only to method but also to the content. Certainly, a believing person must implement hermeneutics of both the texts and the experience of faith. But there are also objective doctrinal contents, without which any hermeneutics and subjective experience would be impossible.

 

For those unfamiliar with the subject, what exactly is dogmatic theology and why is it important?

Dogmatic theology is that part of theology that studies the dogmas revealed by God, that is, the supernatural truths about God and his plan of salvation. Theology is important as a science of faith. There is faith, which is the obedient response to God's revelation. 

Faith is not the fruit of our intellectual speculation, but is a theological virtue made possible, in grace, by the fact that God has made himself known in a supernatural way...Dogmatic theology is important, because it allows us to give reason for what we believe on a doctrinal level, providing — as far as possible — a rational, scientifically obtained explanation of the dogmas revealed by God. The dimension of the mystery remains ever greater and in a certain sense inaccessible, yet theology is not useless; on the contrary, it is necessary both for the spiritual life and for evangelization. 

For this reason, the Church does not “tolerate” theologians, but wishes there to be many good theologians, because they help her in her mission. On the other hand, the vocation to be a theologian is an ecclesial vocation, as well explained in 1990 by the Donum Veritatis Instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

 

Often nowadays, supporting the dogmatic teaching of the Church can lead to a kind of persecution, even in the Church. Those who promote orthodoxy are increasingly marginalized. How can dogmatic theology regain the reverence and respect it once had in this period of relativism, that has also infected the Church? 

I have to say that it is honestly not easy for me to answer this question and I would not like to express myself concisely on such complex issues, which would require a broad, differentiated and articulate treatment. The cases are of different types, as are their circumstances. The cases you describe can happen, but cases also exist where there is a distorted use of doctrinal orthodoxy.

Certainly, relativism is one of the great challenges of our time and we [members of the Church] are not exempt from this challenge. I was referring above to the fact that, in addition to the subjective element, there is the objective, doctrinal element of faith, which must not be overlooked. 

It is no secret that some sectors of theology, not only today, walk on a liminal path and, in some cases, even go beyond it, as evidenced by the various notifications issued over the years by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in which it has condemned doctrinal errors present in the works of various contemporary theologians. The phenomenon of problematic theological currents, which succeed in influencing large sectors of the Church, does not concern only the last decades, because there have been difficulties in this field at least since the end of the 19th century. 

An illustrious theologian said that perhaps even more so than the post [Second Vatican] Council period, the problem was the pre-Council theology. As I understood it, he was referring to problematic theological movements, which already existed decades before Vatican II and which came to light only after the Council, even if we must not fall into the logical error of the post hoc ergo propter hoc[an informal fallacy that states: “Since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X.”]

 

To what extent do you think that the current situation, in which the Pope and other Church leaders can make spontaneous, theologically ambiguous comments that are then immediately transmitted to the world, has created a crisis in dogmatic theology? 

As I said, if there is a crisis in dogmatic theology, it has much more remote roots, which go back to a time when the present mass-media in society did not yet exist. 

Regarding the first part of your question, I find the words said not so long ago by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in response to a journalist's question, illuminating. The context was the presentation, held in the Vatican last Sept. 22, of the Letter Samaritanus Bonus. Answering the question of the journalist Sandro Magister about the ambiguity of the teaching of some bishops regarding the moral teaching of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Ladaria replied: “I would return to what the Second Vatican Council also says in the Constitution Lumen Gentium on the Church, and then to various explanations given by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. [...] The Council says that there are three elements [to take into consideration]: the frequency of a declaration, the tone of this declaration, the nature of the document. A Council is not the same as a declaration to a journalist. This must be very clear. It is not the same as an encyclical, a speech that the pope makes, or if I now say something in front of you. [...] It can also happen that at certain moments, in certain types of statements, which are not infallible, the Catholic finds himself in difficulty. In these cases, the documents of the Church also provide that a moment of silence can be made, without making an act of public opposition, but this does not [...] mean that when a bishop opens his mouth he speaks in an infallible way or engages the Magisterium of the Church. He does not. The Church has the elements of discrimination, of judgment, because the Magisterium is highly articulated and exercised at many levels.”

In other words, with due reverence, we must remember that not everything that comes out of the mouth of a bishop is, ipso facto, doctrine of the Church. Theology, among its many tasks, also has the task of remembering the existence of criteria of distinction of the various pronouncements (as did Cardinal Ladaria in the words now reported) and to apply them to different situations. While not a few mass media somehow always seek the "doctrinal scandal" — and it must be admitted that, at times, some bishops unwittingly help them to pursue this goal — theologians can help in re-dimensioning certain cases, in adequately interpreting certain expressions that are not well formulated and, in particular cases, also in highlighting the incompatibility of some assertions with the doctrine of the Church, while emphasizing that they are unable, by their very nature, to change the Catholic faith, because they do not commit the teaching authority of the Church to the same level as the constant teaching of the magisterium. 

However, I would also like to recall the need for moderation in making this kind of public intervention, especially if they are made in writing. Otherwise, they could even have the opposite effect. Moderation can be interpreted as cowardice, and in some cases perhaps it is. But in general, to say things clearly and, at the same time, without taking a tone, is rather a form of prudence, which is a virtue.

 

What do you say to critics of dogmatic theology who say that it can prevent a true development of doctrine in keeping with the spirit of the times, that it represents a kind of bigotry devoid of pastoral sensitivity, which can even hinder the search for the Truth? 

I would say that what they describe as dogmatic theology is rather dogmatism. Dogmatic theology, well understood, not only does not exclude healthy dogmatic development, but it includes and promotes it. In fact, dogmatic development is only possible thanks to the contribution of great theologians, such as the Fathers and Doctors, as well as other factors such as liturgy and sensus fidelium. In this regard, the recent canonization of John Henry Newman (October 13, 2019) is a very important reminder to the Church in our time. This extraordinary theologian has gone into great depth and explained well, both historically and theologically, what is true dogmatic development and has also provided us with criteria of discernment to distinguish it from the pernicious evolution of dogma. Today there are cases in which certain [false] doctrines are presented as if they represented an organic development of dogma or morality of the Church, but in reality they lack the characteristics indicated by Newman to recognize where there is true continuity, and therefore true development, and where instead we see an attempt to change the faith of the Church. 

It is easy to say that a certain newly proposed doctrine is in continuity with the Church's doctrine of all time. But Newman teaches us that the continuity of doctrinal development cannot simply be asserted. It must be demonstrated and objective criteria for doing so must be utilized. As already said, we must be in favor and work to cooperate in true dogmatic development, while doctrinal evolution must be opposed. The first is vital, the second is mortal.

 

Is it possible to adhere “rigidly” to dogmatic truths and at the same time be pastoral? 

I would not use the expression “rigidly,” as if it were possible to accept dogmas halfway or softly. Dogmas are truths revealed by God. 

If one believes the Word of God, he professes in faith the dogmas revealed by him. It is not a matter of rigidity, but of fidelity and obedience to God. For example, from Revelation we learn that “the Word became flesh.” Those who have the grace of faith firmly believe that Jesus Christ is truly God and man. Is it rigidity? 

To defend this and other truths is simply fidelity, as it is to seek, with the help of grace, to conform one’s life to them. I do not think that it would be better [if] someone …said something like: "Jesus was a divine man, a man inspired by God....” This would not be a lack of rigidity, but simply a lack of faith. 

To come to the second part of the question, fidelity to Revelation, as presented by the doctrine of the Church, is not only not an obstacle to pastoralism, but it is a prerequisite. If pastoral action consists in evangelizing, celebrating the sacraments, performing the works of bodily and spiritual mercy, this could not be done adequately by those with half a faith. Only an integral, convinced and, we can say, enthusiastic and joyful faith can generate an effective and truly Catholic — that is “universal” — pastoral ministry.

 

What role do laypeople play in preserving the dogmatic truths of the faith? 

They have an essential role, to say the least. Let us not forget that the Revelation of God is delivered to the Church and not only to ordained ministers, who nonetheless have a special doctrinal responsibility, as already mentioned. God has delivered his Word to the Church, to inspire the faith that saves. 

Every baptized person is in this sense a guardian of the faith, even if he or she has not received episcopal consecration, which confers a special doctrinal authority in the Church...In short, this means that, even when they have not carried out theological studies, the faithful possess a sort of supernatural instinct, given by the Holy Spirit, which directs them to accept the truth heard by God through the Church and to reject errors, both those introduced from outside and those sometimes proposed from within the Church. Let us think concretely of the dear and irreplaceable old ladies of our parishes: In the face of certain doctrinal statements, they would not be able to quote texts by Fathers and Doctors, nor would they probably be able to argue at the theological level their dissent from certain theses. 

But thanks to their faith and the prolonged practice of personal prayer, combined with the devoted and attentive frequency of the liturgy, even these very simple people instinctively feel that something is wrong in a certain doctrine, in a certain statement. The good thing is that, not infrequently, after hearing something strange in a homily, they also rightly have the courage to talk about it with the priest. 

Just as, on the contrary, when they hear something that their supernatural instinct senses as appropriate to the faith, they also congratulate the preacher for saying "something so beautiful" that filled their hearts because it confirmed them in the faith. This, by the way, reminds us how important it is that the preacher or catechist does not “scandalize the little ones” and, on the other hand, it also reminds us how the so-called “little ones” are many times “bigger” in the faith even than some of the sacred ministers.

I find it significant, returning to a higher level of discourse, that the Code of Canon Law recognizes the right of the faithful to speak with their pastors (Canon 212 §§2 and 3), subject to respect for them. This implies that the Church recognizes the responsibility of all the baptized for the care and transmission of the faith.

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